From "The Razor’s Edge"

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From "The Razor’s Edge"
W. Somerset Maugham

This is an excerpt from The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham. In this excerpt, Maugham relates a conversation he had with Larry Darrell, whom he had known for twenty years. He met Larry by accident one afternoon on the streets of Paris. Maugham wrote this after talking to Larry all night, over coffee. The events Larry describe occurred a little more than two years before the conversation.

Larry is speaking to Maugham:

"When I’d been at the Ashrama just two years I went up to my forest retreat for a reason that’ll make you smile. I wanted to spend my birthday there. I got there the day before. Next morning I awoke before dawn and I thought I’d go and see the sunrise from the place I’ve just told you about. I knew the way blindfolded. I sat down under a tree and waited. It was night still, but the stars were pale in the sky, and day was at hand. I had a strange feeling of suspense. So gradually that I was hardly aware of it, light began to filter through the darkness, slowly, like a mysterious figure slinking between the trees. I felt my heart beating as though at the approach of danger. The sun rose."

Larry paused and a rueful smile played on his lips.

"I have no descriptive talent, I don’t know the words to paint a picture, I can’t tell you, so as to make you see it, how grand the sight was that was displayed before me as the day broke in its splendor. Those mountains with their deep jungle, the mist still entangled in the treetops, and the bottomless lake far below me. The sun caught the lake through a cleft in the heights and it shone like burnished steel. I was ravished with the beauty of the world. I’d never known such exaltation and such transcendent joy. I had a strange sensation, a tingling that arose in my feet and traveled up to my head, and I felt as though I were suddenly released from my body and as pure spirit partook of a loveliness I had never conceived. I had a sense that a knowledge more than human possessed me, so that everything that had been confused was clear and everything that had perplexed me was explained. I was so happy that it was pain and I struggled to release myself from it, for I felt that if it lasted a moment longer I should die; and yet it was such rapture that I was ready to die rather than forego it. How can I tell you what I felt? No words can tell the ecstasy of my bliss. When I came to myself I was exhausted and trembling. I fell asleep.

"It was high noon when I woke. I walked back to the bungalow, and I was so light at heart that it seemed to me that I hardly touched the ground. I made myself some food, gosh, I was hungry, and I lit my pipe."

Larry lit his pipe now.

"I dared not think that this was illumination, that I, Larry Darrell of Marvin, Illinois, had received when others striving for it for years, with austerity and mortification, still waited."

"What makes you think that it was anything more than a hypnotic condition induced by your state of mind combined with the solitude, the mystery of the dawn and the burnished steel of your lake?"

"Only my overwhelming sense of its reality. After all, it was an experience of the same order as mystics have had all over the world through the centuries. Brahmins in India, Sufis in Persia, Catholics in Spain, Protestants in New England; and so far as they’ve been able to describe what defies description they’ve described it in similar terms. It’s impossible to deny the fact of its occurrence; the only difficulty is to explain it. If I was for a moment one with the Absolute or if it was an inrush from the subconscious of an affinity with the universal spirit which is latent in all of us, I wouldn’t know."

Larry paused for an instant and threw me a quizzical glance.

"By the way, can you touch your little finger with your thumb?" he asked.

"Of course," I said with a laugh, proving it with the appropriate action.

"Are you aware that that’s something that only man and the primates can do? It’s because the thumb is opposable to the other digits that the hand is the admirable instrument it is. Isn’t it possible that the opposable thumb, doubtless in a rudimentary form, was developed in the remote ancestor of man and the gorilla in certain individuals, and was a characteristic that only became common to all after innumerable generations? Isn’t it at least possible that these experiences of oneness with Reality that so many diverse persons have had point to a development in the human consciousness of a sixth sense which in the far, far future will be common to all men so that they may have as direct a perception of the Absolute as we have now of the objects of senses?"

"And how would you expect that to affect them?" I asked.

"I can as little tell you that as the first creature that found it could touch its little finger with its thumb could have told you what infinite consequences were entailed in that insignificant action. So far as I’m concerned, I can only tell you that the intense sense of peace, joy, and assurance that possessed me in that moment of rapture abides with me still and that the vision of the world’s beauty is as fresh and vivid now as when my eyes were first dazzled by it."